Québécois have been alternately fascinated and repulsed by the United States — and by extension American music — from the time the French-speaking Canadian province began to assert its distinct identity in the early 1960s. Obvious exceptions like Céline Dion notwithstanding, names and language prevent most Québécois artists from affecting a similar transference to that taken by English Canadians, whose shared language with the masses of English speakers south of the border manifests itself in discomfort with many aspects of American values and culture at the same time as proximity allows them to pass as ersatz Americans. Yet, as anyone who has ever seen Québec situation comedies or pop performers can attest, the lure of the U.S. remains in the independence-minded province.
Percussionist Michel F Côté’s Flat Fourgonnette (Ambiances Magnétiques) is simultaneously a celebration of and a satire on Yankee musical imperialism. A member since 1988 of the Montréal-based Ambiances Magnétiques collective, Côté and the others call their sounds musique actuelle — music of today — and mulch together rock, folk, contemporary classical, jazz, and other influences. Côté, however, is involved with many dramatic, dance, and film projects, to the extent that Flat Fourgonnette’s 19 tracks are often as theatrical as they are musical, with the 20 featured musicians taking on many actorly roles.
A member of ensembles including the jazz-rock trio Klaxon Gueule, the percussionist provides his interpretation of American music by going right to its source: early folk, country, and pop music. Not only does he mix in excerpts from recordings of Mississippi John Hurt, Hank Williams, and Clarence Ashley, to name three, but many of the tunes have a purported country & western background. That isn’t too far-fetched since cowboy hat, bolo tie, and boot-wearing country singers have long been as much a part of rural French-Canadian spectacles as they are in performances elsewhere in North America.
The particular talent of Côté, who plays drums, percussion, harmonica, organ, and sings here, is to produce his own songs written in an idiom similar to the actualités so that there’s no fissure. Accordion, steel guitars, and fiddles, shouted “yee-haws”, pinched-noise harmonies and — as Côté puts it — “poor whistling” are therefore put to use alongside the refined and reliable improvisations of folks like trombonist Tom Walsh and reedist Jean Derome. All in all, the treatment of the material is more like the gentle spoofs of guitarist Eugene Chadbourne than the savage parodies of Frank Zappa.
Among the stand-out tracks are My Girl (“my gal’s a corker/ she’s a New Yorker”) sung in near moribund dead-pan fashion in English by AnneBruce Falconer, whose voice is balanced on top of the quivering soundscape of Bernard Falaise and Claude Fradette’s weeping electric guitars; and Sitting Bull, a 1940s-style faux C&W instrumental featuring speedy fills from Falaise and Frédéric Boudreault on electric bass with Côté contributing vocal gurgling, drum beats, and the rhythmic shaking of a vitamin bottle.
Also featured are sound manipulations such as House Carpenter and Parti longtemps. The latter uses a false stereo echo chamber to have Hank Williams distantly singing one of his more lachrymose ballads, accompanied by what Côté calls “cheap polyrhytme” from the percussionist plus simple guitar licks and metallic slashes from Frank Martel’s theremin. The former mixes stinging rock guitar distortion, backbeat drumming, organ crescendos, and kazoo-like twittering into a four-chord punk rock-like outing, only to have the tune fade into a recording of old timey banjoist Clarence Ashley picking the same rhythm acoustically.
Since Côté describes the CD as being poetic like “an old story-telling buffalo”, whose imprecise recollections include cowboys and horses, a saloon and its pretty manageress, a love story, “and even an Indian or two”, it’s not unfair to note that when his compositions are serious, they take on a certain Old World romantic flavor. Yeux de Lucie, for example, features clarinetist Jean-Denis Levasseur, trumpeter Nemo Venba, trombonist Walsh — a committed jazzer as well as a musique actuelle participant — guitarist Bernard Poirier, and Lou Babin on accordion in a brassy lilt, midway between a fanfare and a tarantella.
Meanwhile Incendies, which completes the program, becomes a Beaux Epoch café waltz performed by Falaise, overdubbed on both electric bass and guitar, Côté on glockenspiel and percussion, and Luzio Altobelli on accordion. Only the squealing split tone from the alto and baritone saxophones of Derome — another long time Ambiances Magnétiques participant, who also plays jazz—hints that this is anything more than easy-listening fluff.
If it sounds middle of the road, at least this tune is musically sophisticated, high-class fluff, just as many of the other compositions transcend satiric origin to reveal the sensitivity at their cores. Flat Fourgonnette, Côté’s “album of American music” shows that the Québécois, like the Dutch and the Italians — and unlike Americans — can amalgamate energy, passion, caricature, and cacophony into a sonic package. Without bitterness or vulgarity, the outcome is a product that entertains at the same time it stretches sound barriers.
Since many American improvised music fans are familiar with the distinctive music coming form the Netherlands and Italy, a few more should venture a few miles north of the US’s Eastern border and discover the creations of Côté and his colleagues in musique actuelle.